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Baker Defends Prison COVID Policies Amid Calls For More Action

Gov. Charlie Baker is defending the way state correction officials are handling the coronavirus pandemic as some state and federal lawmakers are publicly urging him to do more to prevent the spread of the virus behind bars.

After recent spikes in positive cases at some state prisons, Baker said the state has reduced the number of people incarcerated and the Department of Correction has taken the appropriate steps to contain the virus. Data on releases includes those who were scheduled to be released and those who petitioned the courts to be let out so the exact numbers are not clear. Advocates say the numbers of those incarcerated in county jails has increased since August.

The DOC has "done a really good job of managing COVID from the beginning for throughout the length of the pandemic, except for a few months this summer," Baker said. "And even then they might have outperformed Massachusetts overall on their positive test rate. They've done a terrific job of keeping prisoners and inmates separated, providing them with PPE, sanitization, all that sort of stuff, instructions and guidance about how to avoid spreading the virus. They've done a good job with this stuff."

Baker made the comments Tuesday afternoon as a group of lawmakers and advocates, including Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, were holding a State House press conference urging Baker to take action as the number of infections rise at MCI-Norfolk, a medium security prison that holds about 1,200 men. Since widespread coronavirus testing began two weeks ago, a total of 172 men have tested positive and three are hospitalized, according to the DOC. The DOC says comprehensive testing of prisoners there has been completed and they are continuing to test direct custody staff at other correctional facilities.

The department says there are 19 positive cases at MCI-Shirley Minimum and one case at MCI-Concord, MCI-Shirley Medium and at MCI-Cedar Junction each.

Pressley and Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said they wrote a letter to Baker urging him to do more to reduce the number of people behind bars.

"We've been sounding the alarm on this for months," Pressley said. "COVID-19 does not need to be a death sentence for prisoners and prison staff. As the chief executive of the commonwealth, the governor alone — with a stroke of a pen — has the power to pardon or commute the sentences of thousands medically vulnerable people behind the wall and to reunite them with their families."

Rollins said the governor should follow states like New Jersey, which recently released thousands of prisoners because of the pandemic. She called the recent outbreaks a public health, racial equity and humanitarian crisis.

"Other states have safely released people from custody to alleviate the spread of the virus in jails and prisons," Rollins said. "Data show our incarcerated population is increasing and the timing could not be worse. These unsanitary, highly confined and tight spaces are disproportionately filled with Black and brown people."

While there are avenues for those held pre-trial to seek release because of the pandemic, Rollins is reviewing cases of those who are incarcerated post-conviction. She said her office has reviewed more than 1,000 cases of those who have been convicted of crimes and are seeking release and the office has been "diligent" in not opposing release in many cases.

"People who are incarcerated deserve to be treated with dignity and should not be subject to medical cruelty," Rollins said. "We have no death penalty in Massachusetts yet we have seen people die."

State Sen. Becca Rausch visited Norfolk Tuesday and said she met with prison staff and detainees about the outbreak. She said the staff and administrators at Norfolk are "trying hard under difficult circumstances," but she said the most recent outbreak is "unacceptable." She called on the state to do more widespread testing, including all correction officers. Rausch said there will be more similar outbreaks unless the state considers options such as home confinement to release prisoners.

"There will be another outbreak, and another, and another, unless we reduce the prison population," Rausch said. "The Baker administration needs a more proactive strategy — not only to protect those incarcerated, but employees of DOC, the prisons and their families."

In the meantime, an attorney has filed an affidavit asking the court to reconsider the denial of a Norfolk prisoner's motion for release, saying that the conditions at the prison are filthy and some prisoners are not receiving medical care.

Attorney Lisa Newman-Polk's affidavit says her clients incarcerated at Norfolk say that about 70 men who have tested positive for the virus are quarantined in a unit with three urinals and three toilets.

"The units are filthy with dust everywhere," the affidavit reads. "They appear not to have been cleaned for years and there are no janitors designated to clean them. The quarantined prisoners who are well enough are doing what they can to clean the units; however, they have not been provided proper cleaning supplies."

The affidavit also says prisoners are released from the quarantine unit after they report that their symptoms have diminished, and many "are eager to move back to their cells as soon as possible, creating an incentive to downplay symptoms."

The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in April that some prisoners, especially those held pre-trial, are eligible to seek release. The court also said that it's up to the executive branch, not the judicial branch, to release more prisoners amid the pandemic. In October, advocates filed a lawsuit, arguing that the DOC is ignoring the court ruling to consider home confinement.

Since March, eight men in DOC custody and two men in county jails have died from COVID-19.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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